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Rob DeStefano

Tenzin Tanaka playing on a swing set at his mother’s home. Photo by Samantha Blandi
By Chris Mellides

When a family member is diagnosed with cancer, the road ahead can be hard and uncertain. And when this diagnosis befalls a child, the situation appears even more dire. While it can be difficult for families affected by this disease to seek assistance, it is all the more meaningful when a community answers the call and comes together to offer its support.  

At a Comsewogue School District Board of Education meeting Feb. 6, Colleen Tanaka, a care coordinator for kids with special needs and single mother of two, stood to address the room. She shared the story of her 8-year-old son, Tenzin, who in June 2022 was diagnosed with T-ALL leukemia. Tanaka’s eldest son, Paxton, has been attending school, though Tenzin has yet to do so since the family’s move into the district.

Tanaka said that when her youngest son began feeling unwell he was taken to see his pediatrician, an ear, nose and throat doctor and an allergist. Tenzin was originally diagnosed with parainfluenza virus type 3, which can cause a variety of respiratory illnesses and was in line with some of the symptoms he was experiencing. This would ultimately be determined as a misdiagnosis. 

“He really was just very fatigued, not keeping down food,” Tanaka said. “They put him on medication and within two days he was vomiting water. The poor kid could not stand without wanting to pass out and his lips were just bloody and chapped.”

When Tenzin was admitted to the emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital, the mother said that the doctor examining him was visibly concerned, immediately calling for bloodwork, followed by an X-ray to rule out the presence of any tumors, according to Tanaka. 

Tenzin was officially diagnosed with leukemia on June 2 and was immediately admitted into the hospital for further treatment. 

“I think the biggest thing is that this child went from being a typical 8-year-old whose biggest worry was getting up and going to school to, like, we almost lost him the first night,” his mother said. “He was that sick.”

One of the attendees at the Feb. 6 meeting was Joan Nickeson, who sits on the facilities and legislative advocacy committees at CSD. Nickeson sat directly behind Tanaka and, upon hearing the mother speak, described feeling as though “the planets aligned.” At the close of the meeting, Nickeson asked Tanaka whether there was anything she could do to help. 

“I immediately asked if she had a Venmo account and donated some money because she revealed that she was a single parent,” Nickeson said. “When families are faced with these sort of diagnoses, often one parent in a two-parent family loses their income to care for their child, and she’s a one-parent income family.”

Tenzin’s story also drew the attention of the school board, including BOE trustee Rob DeStefano, organizer of the Terryville Volunteer Connection. Board members, along with the district’s superintendent of schools, Jennifer Quinn, spoke with Tanaka, offering supportive suggestions and well wishes.

“I felt like I moved into this district and nobody knew what was going on with our family,” the mother said. “It wasn’t until I went to the board meeting and then the outpouring started.”

DeStefano said that since learning about Tenzin and his family, he has noticed a massive response from the community.

“Hearing any of our neighbors enduring this challenge is initially a gut punch for sure,” he said. “But upon processing the situation, the response is to explore ways to assist and ensure they know they are not alone.”

As the organizer of the Terryville Volunteer Connection, DeStefano works with community members to help champion local causes. The goal of the group, he indicated, is to connect residents with causes that build pride and spread good throughout Long Island. 

“The connection among our local residents, our schools and the students within is strong,” the school board member and volunteer organizer said. “We are a family of Warriors and that is once again proven by the awesome outpouring of support we’re witnessing here.”

Paxton Tanaka, left, plays with his younger brother, Tenzin, at the Tanaka residence. Photo by Samantha Blandi


As a local resident with three children attending Comsewogue School District, Laura Feeley took a creative approach to helping Tenzin and his family during their time of need, starting a district-approved T-shirt fundraiser that went live on Feb. 8. 

The red shirts for sale are emblazoned with a yellow lightning bolt on the front, reminiscent of the logo worn by DC Comics’ The Flash, Tenzin’s favorite superhero. The back of the shirts bear the name Tenzin’s Fan Club.

Feeley said that there has been a fair number of T-shirts already sold, adding that she hopes the fundraiser will reach 200 shirts in the near future. 

“I thought it would be a great idea to not only show moral support by wearing the T-shirts, but also raising funds,” she said. “I think people need to know how much mental, monetary and social strain it puts on not only the child but the whole family.” 

Feeley added, “It’s a devastating disease and holds so many negative repercussions. This is why I think the shirts are a great idea — it’s showing the family we care enough about them to show it on our backs. Tenzin is a strong fighter who deserves all the support that we can give him, along with his family as well.”

A GoFundMe was created by a close friend of the Tanaka family at the time Tenzin was diagnosed. It has already raised over $16,500 as of March 7. The mother, while appreciative, said that the experience felt strange to her and that she wasn’t keen on the idea at first. 

“It was a lot to process, but it was a saving grace because I was able to pay some of my bills at that point,” Tanaka said. “I’m very fortunate that I have people that know my situation, care about me and went out of their way to make sure that in that time there was something in place because I don’t know what I would have done.”

In addition to the GoFundMe page, a program through Meal Train was created for Tanaka’s family, which the mother is grateful for and helps her take her mind off of cooking for her children after sometimes spending all day at Stony Brook Cancer Center where Tenzin receives his outpatient care.

Asked about her experience with Meal Train, Tanaka expressed her appreciation for the service. “It’s almost like a website that gives a little information on the family and people can go on there and pick dates that they either want to cook a meal and bring it to us, send a meal or donate money,” she said.

The Tanaka family enjoying a day together at their home. Left to right: Tenzin, Colleen and
Paxton. Photo by Samantha Blandi

A great kid

Tanaka said that while Tenzin is currently on a feeding tube and undergoing chemotherapy, his medical team has recommended that when the third grader feels hungry he should eat. 

The mother said that her son’s favorite place to eat is at Applebee’s and that she has lost count of the number of times she’s had to make Uber Eats and DoorDash orders to be delivered to the hospital. Later, Applebee’s became more involved with the family and has even pledged to donate Tanaka a meal each week while Tenzin is receiving care. 

“I guess one of the PTA moms or somebody had reached out to Applebee’s and told them that this kid loves it,” Tanaka said. “And they had given us a couple of gift cards and things. So, we actually went there and he got to sit and actually eat there. I know it sounds crazy, but to him that was the best part of his day.” 

When asked to describe her son, Tanaka was forthcoming. “He is quite the individual,” she said. “Tenzin is very headstrong, determined and he’s always been that way.” 

Tenzin’s mother added, “He’s very into Minecraft

and Lego building. He’s probably one of the kindest 8-year-olds I’ve ever met — just very empathetic, always thinking of others before himself. He’s just a great kid.”

Quinn conveyed just how welcoming the district has been to Tenzin, despite him being a newcomer. She also noted how endearing the community has been in assisting him and his family. 

“I can’t express how proud I am to live and work in a community that is always so willing and able to step up and help anybody when they’re in need, like true Warriors,” she said, adding, “Tenzin is the definition of a Warrior.”

The superintendent added, “I think the big takeaway is how brave he is and how as I said before, no child should ever have to face something so terrible. But we’re going to be here with him. … We’re really looking forward to him getting past this and putting it behind him — and living a full, happy life.”

Correction: In the print version of this article, we reported an incorrect timeline for Tenzin Tanaka’s recovery. Tenzin is expected to receive treatment until October 2024, not this spring, according to his mother. We do regret the error.

Photo courtesy Rob DeStefano
By Rob DeStefano

On Nov. 17, and subsequent to a judicial ruling against a New York public school district, the New York State Education Department sent a memo communicating a “need to ensure that district mascots, team names and logos are nondiscriminatory.” This memo closed with an unfortunate edict: “Should a district fail to affirmatively commit to replacing its Native American team name, logo and/or imagery by the end of the 2022-23 school year, it may be in willful violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.” 

In response, I contacted NYS Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa and introduced several preliminary questions and recommendations, including the imperative that time be afforded to make this a teachable moment — both a cultural and business education opportunity. The commissioner agreed with the academic opportunity. She recognized more information for affected school districts was needed, and these details are expected soon.

Throughout our conversation, Commissioner Rosa’s responses to my questions continued to incorporate the term “reasonable.” The dialogue yielded some insights and elevated some concerns that have been topics among our community members during these intervening weeks:

By the end of this school year (June 2023), affected districts shall provide an attestation that they intend to comply with changes to ensure nondiscriminatory logos/mascots/names, etc.

Logo development and implementation will be done in a reasonable time frame. Subsequent to our conversation, NYSED has indicated implementation by the end of the 2024-25 school year.

Logos on gymnasium floors and turf fields were greeted with a “reasonable” replacement. I interpret this to mean the turf field logo would be replaced when the turf is next due for wear replacement, as anything that accelerated financial burden on the district or our residents, I view as “unreasonable.” However, my interpretation awaits confirmation in the forthcoming details from NYSED.

Existing logos/names in question could be maintained if there is an existing agreement with local tribes to preserve these artifacts. As recently as 2020, local Native American leaders have not favored our logo. Further discussion should always be an option.

It was not explicitly affirmed whether our district naming was at risk. However, “Comsewogue” is a vocabulary word — not a direct name of a Native American person or peoples — and “Warriors” is a generic term originating from Anglo-French and used ubiquitously across cultures. These origins suggest reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms.

Going at least as far back as my elementary experience, Comsewogue School District has taught the history of our community, including the Setalcott Native Americans and the translation of the local Native American term “Comsewogue” — or its historic spelling “Cumsewogue” — as “an intersection of many paths,” or “where many paths meet.” Perhaps the exploration of this history could be expanded through our problem-based learning curriculum. It might include an opportunity to meet present-day local Native American leaders willing to share their insights on topics of interest, but I will yield to our educators on best practice implementation.

From a business education perspective, I advised the state commissioner that business logos take more than six months to change — let alone a logo with strong emotional ties. It would require time to engage and collaborate with community stakeholders, then a period of research to determine the design of a new logo. Again, our problem-based curriculum offers an opportunity here: To learn the process of brand building and brand value, and the opportunity to perform the research to understand the emotions beneath the surface of Warrior Pride. Here again, I will yield to our educators for the creation of compelling learning experiences.

As clarification is received from the state, the school district will keep all stakeholders informed. However, it is always helpful to be prepared. Today’s Comsewogue students are the stewards of the Comsewogue Warrior, its appearance and the values associated with growing up in our community. I could not imagine a change of the current logo that isn’t led by them, built on perspectives from and backed by all our supporting stakeholders. 

Our students are the standard-bearers of today’s Warrior in human and artistic representation. And as envisaged by our students, Comsewogue’s logo will be an intersection of ideals and imagery.

Rob DeStefano serves as trustee for the Comsewogue School District Board of Education. The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Comsewogue School District or its Board of Education.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23, 2016. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

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Comsewogue’s board of education applauds Superintendent Joe Rella, seated, during a Nov. 5 BOE meeting, where it was announced he will retire and be succeeded by Jennifer Quinn, deputy superintendent, right. Photo by Alex Petroski

Comsewogue School District took the first step in preparing to bid farewell to a giant in the community during its Nov. 5 board of education meeting.

The board regretfully accepted Superintendent Joe Rella’s intent to retire during the meeting, effective Aug. 31, 2019, and also approved placing Jennifer Quinn, current deputy superintendent, in line to succeed him beginning next school year. Both moves have been long expected, as Rella shared his intention to step away from the district with TBR News Media in a 2017 interview, though the motions by the board made it official and brought the end of Rella’s career at the helm of the district into clearer focus. Both motions drew standing ovations from those in attendance and from members of the board.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he said a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

“I’ve always believed you leave while you’re having fun, and I’m having fun,” Rella said. 

The district resident said he appreciated the way the community embraced him and credited those interactions with making him a better man. He said he plans to enjoy his retirement spending time with his seven grandchildren. He credited Quinn with spearheading much of the district’s successes of recent years, including attaining a prestigious accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools in 2017, as well as a rapidly expanding problem-based learning curriculum introduced as an alternative learning method aimed at increasing student success in state-mandated standardized testing.

“There was nobody else I would’ve ever wanted to do it,” he said of his successor. “She’ll take this to the next level. She has the street creds because she’s been here. I know there’s an impulse sometimes to do intergalactic searches to find a superintendent, and while the credentials might be outstanding, you don’t know the community and it takes time to build up trust.”

Quinn has been with the Comsewogue district for 13 years, spending four years as high school principal before working side by side with Rella for the last nine as an assistant superintendent and eventually deputy superintendent.

“Joe is the most amazing teacher you could ever ask for, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined working with him,” Quinn said. “He is brilliant. He’s able to see 15 steps down the road. To me that’s a skill that’s so valuable.”

Members of the board of education heaped praise on both administrators in expressing their mixed emotions for the road ahead.

“Everybody knows how amazing Dr. Rella is because he’s so out there and in your face, and in your answering machine and on your cellphone,” board member Ali Gordon said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is how phenomenal Dr. Quinn is and what a team they’ve been all along. She has a phenomenal vision for this district.” 

Board member Rob DeStefano said Rella once gave him advice prior to a big school concert when he was a student and Rella had just began as superintendent.

“What if I mess up, what do I do? Do I stop? Do I keep going?” DeStefano recalled asking Rella ahead of his first big saxophone solo as a high school senior, to which the superintendent replied: “Don’t worry about how it sounds, just play it loud.”

“We’re all very thankful for each of you,” DeStefano said in closing his remarks.